Arkham Horror: The next best thing to being there

Can’t make it to Arkham this year to celebrate Cthulhumas? That’s okay, you have one more option: the board game Arkham Horror.

As Jolly Old Cthulhu slumbers, people in Arkham have to deal with shoggoths, formless spawns, gugs, and mi-go. (The plural of mi-go is mi-go, right?) The investigators are there for their own reasons, but all work to fight monsters, uncover clues, read dusty tomes, purchase swords of glory and whiskey, and jump through inter-dimensional gates. Now that’s how you celebrate a holiday.

Originally released in 1987, Arkham Horror was redesigned and released in 2005, becoming as close to a role-playing board game you can get. Each character has a detailed background, unique abilities that help in magic, combat, item gathering, clue seeking, healing, and a multitude of others. The incredibly intricate game includes enough fiddly bits to thrill any die-hard board gamer, which is the same amount of bits to intimidate any newbie to the hobby. But it’s worth your time to learn this game.

You spent turns moving through Arkham and having encounters in various locations (like the river docks, Miskatonic U, the woods, and Ma’s Boarding House). But you have an elder god stirring in his or her sleep, which causes gates to pop open to other dimensions, monsters to be vomited out onto the streets, and general chaos to reign.

Chosing a character is one of the most rewarding aspects of the game. Each one has a detailed history on the back, giving you a way you can play that character. You can, of course, just play the game to win, but you can also role-play this co-op game, which is more fun in the long run. In one game I played, the hobo character, Ashcan Pete, discovered you could buy a new skill at the college for $8. It became an obsession; his entire goal in the game was not to win, but to earn enough money to “get an education.”

Each old one brings different modifiers to the game, making it difficult in a unique way (Cthulhu is nigh impossible to beat, at least for my gaming group). Every time a gate to the other world opens, the elder god becomes more awake. When it finally wakens, the mucking about in Arkham hunting shoggoths becomes insignificant and the elder god becomes the priority.

While it is my favorite game, it does have its flaws. It has six expansions now: three small ones adding just cards and new plot elements, and three much larger expansions consisting of extra game boards to the cities of Dunwich, Kingsport, and Innsmouth. If you play with all six, all the added cards will dilute the others, making their plot impact negligible. You could play with one or two, but it becomes a pain to separate all the expansion cards from the main game cards. Also, economics makes the game extra hard, as money is difficult to come by and if you have a bad draw for items in the beginning (say, two tomes and some food, which are all useful in gameplay but useless against a formless spawn), then monster hunting will prove difficult.

This game is worth the trial of all the bits and the possibilities of stalling through getting the wrong items, though. Consider it like a holiday feast: it takes a long time to prepare, and stuff can go wrong, but when you get it right, it’s a wonder to behold. I don’t role-play much anymore so I find this an excellent outlet to play a cranky author, an heiress (the only character with no money problems), a magician, or a corrupt politician who finds a deep need to hunt the monsters plaguing Arkham, Innsmouth, and other places.

If you’re new to Arkham Horror and interested, try the core game to start out with, no matter how you may be tempted by expansions. Get a good feel for the game before you start adding the other stuff, and before you know it, you’ll be on Board Game Geek loading up your own homemade elder gods and characters. (To celebrate the season, we just battled the homebrewed elder god San-Ta and his evil herald, Fros-Ti.)

Mur Lafferty is an author and podcaster. She is the host of I Should Be Writing and the author of Playing For Keeps, among other things. You can find all of her projects at


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